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The Sons are Gone; Now the Blood Feud Begins

There is no doubt that the deaths of his two sons will be a devastating blow to Saddam Hussein, but those who hope that their loss will leave him a broken man are likely to be disappointed.

He’ll probably release another audiotape in the next few days saying that he has sacrificed his two sons for the struggle and calling on other Iraqis to be prepared to do the same, one veteran of the Iraqi opposition observed.

What was already a life-and-death struggle for Hussein is now also a blood feud.

Even so, his grief must be extreme. Hussein has always been a family man. One of the very few jokes known to have been coined by the ex-dictator of Iraq concerns the late Uday, who, so Hussein used to quip, had been an “activist” from an early age. This is in reference to the time in 1964 when Hussein was in jail and his wife, Sajida Khairallah Telfah, would bring baby Uday for a visit–with secret messages from Hussein’s fellow Baathist conspirators concealed in Uday’s nappies.

Later, when he was cleaving his way to absolute power, Hussein’s primary instruments were close family members–his half-brothers Barzan, Watban and Sabawi, as well as his uncle, Khairallah Telfah, and cousin Adnan. Son-in-law Hussein Kamel Majid emerged as a central pillar of the regime in the 1980s, as did another member of Hussein’s Majid relatives, Ali Hassan al Majid.

It was a classic example of tribal rule.

Proximity to the throne through blood ties, however, was no guarantee of job security. Hussein’s brothers lost their influence–all had been prominent in the repressive security services–after their mother died in 1982. Adnan Khairallah played a vital role as minister of defense in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s–a little too successfully, perhaps, given that he died soon after the cease-fire in a mysterious helicopter crash. Hussein Kamel Majid was executed for his temporary defection to Jordan in 1995.

In the dangerous quicksand of court politics under Saddam Hussein, only his sons were above the law. Others might be punished for particularly egregious crimes, such as the occasion when the family was lined up to watch cousin Luai Khairallah have his arm broken by Hussein for assaulting his school teacher. But Uday and Qusay appear to have enjoyed total impunity. (Hussein did allegedly consider harshly punishing Uday for murdering his food taster in 1988, but soon relented.) They were the only people whom he felt he could totally and unreservedly trust, and now he has lost them.

Further, the manner of their death has ominous implications for the hunted Iraqi leader, given that they apparently were betrayed by their Mosul hosts. The opulence of Nawaf Zaidan’s villa, at least before it was riddled with American gunfire, suggests that he did well under the old regime, but that was evidently no bar to his vastly increasing his fortune by exchanging his guests for the immense reward on offer.

It is also worth noting that the hiding place selected by the two fugitives was hardly obscure, suggesting that the family is not exactly melting into the population.

Abid Hamid Mahmud Tikriti, Hussein’s private secretary, could think of no more imaginative place to hide than in one of his many residences, where he was duly apprehended. If Hussein is lurking in a similar bolt hole, then it seems entirely possible that he will be unearthed in the near future.

Hardly less ominous for Hussein is the rattle of celebratory gunfire in Baghdad at the news of his sons’ deaths. He may never have labored under the illusion that the people of Iraq love him, but the fact that Baghdadis at least should express such jubilation at the passing of Uday and Qusay indicates that there is little possibility of a groundswell of support in Iraq for a Hussein regime restoration.

The fact that those guns may tomorrow be turned on the U.S. occupation forces under the inspiration of Iraqi nationalism or Islamic fervor is of little use or consolation to him.

Thus Hussein’s options are ever more limited. All he really has left is his image of himself as the dauntless Arab fighter who will never back away from a duel. Now that almost everything he once possessed, including his family, is gone, he is once again a hunted fugitive, just as he was in the winter of 1959 after his failed attempt to assassinate the then-leader of Iraq.

Under his subsequent rule, the story of that flight, complete with happy ending, became the stuff of legend, books and a movie.

This time there is little chance of a happy ending. All he can hope for is the legend.

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Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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